South African’s National Liberation Movement

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National General Council

Discussion Documents

The National Question

29 June 2005

THIS YEAR MARK HALF A CENTURY OF THE Freedom Charter, which proclaimed that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it” and that “All National Groups shall have equal rights!”

This year we also mark the ninth anniversary of the adoption of South Africa’s democratic constitution by the Constitutional Assembly and with it the Bill of Rights. It is also nine years since then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki delivered, on behalf of the ANC, the ‘I am an African’ speech. We also mark 36 years since the ANC’s first national consultative conference, in Morogoro, Tanzania.

The 2004 democratic election ushered in a new political landscape with the decline of ethnic parties like the New National Party (NNP) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the emergence of the Independent Democrats (ID) and new support for the ANC from coloureds in the Western Cape; indians in eThekwini; Zulu-speaking africans in rural KwaZulu Natal; and whites in Gauteng and elsewhere.

The election campaign was marked by images of ANC leaders being warmly embraced by poor whites. On the occasion of the election of the president, the leader of the white opposition party, for the first time, pointedly proclaimed his patriotism, his allegiance to the state, his respect for the office of the president and his acceptance of the right and duty of the majority party to rule by virtue of an overwhelming mandate from the people. For the first time there was a sense that the white parliamentary opposition was being just that, and not an opponent of the system of democratic majority rule.

All of this occasions an opportunity, and a need to reflect on the national question. We have to examine whether we can triumphantly proclaim that the new, and long sought after, South African nation has emerged and the national question resolved. Of course, it would be mechanical (and incorrect) to make such wild claims. But progress has been made towards non-racialism, non-sexism and a common patriotism and nationhood.

We must understand the extent of the progress and honestly acknowledge the challenges that still lie ahead. This must be done on the basis of actual reality. We must do this so we are able to determine a programme of action. While the national question is not the only challenge we face, it is the central political question of our time.

The present period of transition and fluidity creates the opportunity to make rapid strides towards the building of a nation and we dare not shirk this historic responsibility.


The national question around the world, far from being solved, is raising its head in an unimaginably barbaric manner. Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus slaughter each other in the name of their religions. The ethnic cleansing in the Balkans is still fresh in our memories and closer to home we painfully remember the Rwandan genocide which took place just over ten years ago. The Kashmir question has resulted in the mobilisation and proliferation of nuclear weapons in a very populous part of the world, the Taiwan question remains unresolved, ethnic warfare in the former Soviet Union continues, the Northern Ireland question remains a question, and the strife between Tamil and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka continues to cause suffering.

In our own region, the national question continues to result in untold human suffering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Great Lakes region and Sudan. It holds potential for conflict in countries like Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania and Mozambique.

All over South and Central America, those of Spanish descent practice something akin to a colonialism of a special type. The indigenous people of Colombia continue their life and death struggle for justice. Brazil, which has the second biggest African population on this planet, has succeeded, notwithstanding the globalisation of the media, to keep 70 million of its Africans in the shadows. These residents of the favelas are nowhere to be found in business or in the organs of state. The government of President Lula has for the first time now introduced a modest quota for university enrolments.

Even in self-proclaimed ‘advanced’ and ‘stable’ countries problems persist. In Spain, the conflict with the Basque community has not been resolved since the fall of Franco and the Catalonian demand for autonomy persists. The British, apart from their failure to solve the problem in Northern Ireland, have in the past decade experienced a revival of Welsh and Scottish nationalism and the demand for ‘self-rule’ from these groups. The single biggest political question that faced Canada in the past decade was the quest for secession by the Quebecois and the danger of the disintegration of Canada.

The lesson for South Africa is that we dare not ignore the national question in our own country. The actual reality all around the world tells us that, in general, the world has failed to deal with this issue. Nebulous concepts like the ‘rainbow nation’ may lull us into a false sense of complacency. What is the national question in South Africa? In the first place, it is about the liberation of blacks in general and africans in particular.

Secondly, it is the struggle to create a non-racial, non-sexist democratic and united South Africa. Thirdly, it is the quest for a single united South African nation with a common overriding identity. Fourthly, it is about resolving the antagonistic contradictions between black and white. And, fifthly, it is about combating tribalism, racialism or any other form of ethnic chauvinism.


Attending to the national question is important for the stability of a country, for peace and for its growth and development. But it is more than just about the practice of the art of statehood. More importantly, it is about the attainment of fundamental human rights, about justice and about human dignity. It is about freedom.

Tactics adopted to appease some or other narrow ethnic interest during the transition (like the Volkstaat Council or elements of the dispensation for traditional leaders) for the sake of making an overall advance should not be automatically elevated to being elements of our strategic approach to the national question. Matters relating to the national question are more than just about expediency.

In the South African context, the national question is not principally about the rights of minorities or ethnically motivated grievances (this statement is not intended to diminish the importance of the rights of minorities). It is, in fact, principally about the liberation of the african people.

According to the Morogoro conference: “The main content of the present stage of the South African revolution is the liberation of the largest and most oppressed group – the african people”. Hence, the main measure of the progress made on the national question is the extent and depth of the liberation of african people in particular – and blacks in general. This point must not be lost as a result of the excessive discourse in the media about ‘minority fears’.


The criteria that define and characterise the South African nation, or any nation for that matter, cannot be defined in cold mechanical terms. Nations are not made in heaven. They are not static and unchanging. Nations are products of politics, history, and social and economic processes. New issues arise from time to time which require a fresh analysis of nation-building.

An example of such an issue in the coming years may be the presence in South Africa of new immigrants from a variety of African countries.

Within this context, we can outline the following as elements of the defining characteristics of the new South African nation we seek:

* Equal rights. All South Africans to enjoy equality before the law and all national groups and ethnic groups (‘tribes’) to enjoy equal rights.

* A common territory. All South Africans to live in the same country and territory, not in a balkanised South Africa, not in a constellation of TBVC ‘states’, not in a confederation of autonomous and independent provinces and not in Volkstate.

* A common economy. Not a prosperous urban economy on the one hand and a hopeless Bantustan economy on the other, and not an economy in which opportunity and inclusion depends on race and ethnicity.

* A sense of community. There should be a kindred spirit among all South Africans – a sense of “I am my sister’s and my brother’s keeper”.

* A common patriotism.

* A common loyalty to the constitution and the democratic state.

* A common South African culture. All South Africans should enjoy the right to practice their own culture. However, there needs to be a critical mass of common culture and cultural practices that all South Africans practice and identify with.

* A mutual respect for languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs of different groups.

So what progress on the national question?

At the outset the notion of ‘solving the national question’ must be rejected. The national question cannot be solved any more than nationhood can be proclaimed by edict. The concept of ‘solution’ is static and rigid.

In a country with many languages, religions and ethnic groups, the national question will always be with us. It is a question which needs constant attention if we are not to make the mistake of the Soviet Union which simply decreed that the national question was solved, only to result in the most venomous and destructive expression of the contradictions among the former Soviet nationalities.

In this tenth year of democracy we should not be asking whether or not the national question is still a question. Instead we should boldly acknowledge that it will remain a question for a long, long time to come. That it is so is not a failing of the movement or our strategy and tactics. That it is so is just objective reality. And, our movement has never denied reality. None of this implies that the quest for nationhood and a common patriotism will elude us for ever.

After ten years of democracy we ask the questions: are we advancing the nation-building project? Are we responding in a correct and progressive manner to the national question?

In the first ten years of democracy, important strides have been made. This period will stand out forever in our history. All South Africans, regardless of race, colour or creed enjoy equal rights before the law. A system of democratic majority rule – without minority veto – has been established. The tricameral parliament has been abolished and in its place a popular democratic parliament representative of all our people, including women.

The integrity of South Africa, geographically and territorially, has been restored with the dismantling of the Bantustans. The quality of life of the most oppressed under apartheid, the africans, has improved with the extension of health care services, provision of schools, clean drinking water, housing, household electricity, telephone and postal services etc.

The public service and organs of state are becoming more and more representative of the population.

Every day we see signs of a growing common patriotism among all South Africans. A recent example is the genuine outpouring of joy at the winning of the soccer world cup bid. All languages enjoy the equal recognition of the law.

The voting patterns of the 2004 election mark the beginning of the end of racial politics and racial and ethnic party political mobilisation. The people, in this election, expressed their rejection of ethnic representation. A significant number of whites, including Afrikaners, voted for the ANC, and the ANC emerged as the largest party among coloureds and indians. Overall, the support for ethnic and racial parties declined significantly.

But all this progress is insufficient and limited. The painful reality of our country is that, in general, it is still the case that to be born african is to be born into a world of hardships not experienced by whites.

This is accentuated if you are a women or a rural person. In many ways it is still a white man’s world. Economic apartheid is well and alive.

The successor to colonialism of a special type is a country characterised by two economies. The first is a prosperous and advanced developed economy bolstered by an enabling set of government policies, a legal framework and state institutions. The second is backward and underdeveloped – outside the banking system and not benefiting from the enabling instruments of the state.

Notwithstanding significant progress in black economic empowerment (BEE), the economy is by and large owned and controlled by white men. Even companies with black equity partners have white managers. After ten years of democracy, not one of the key financial institutions has majority – or even a significant minority – black ownership or management. And, a number of leading BEE companies are actually run by whites.

The inequality is not just a feature of the private sector. Whites go to better government schools than africans; whites get better police services, better municipal services, etc.

It is still so that a small number of whites own most of the land. It is still so that rural africans feel a deep sense of injustice at the inequitable ownership of land. It is also so that during the first ten years of democracy forced removals continued in the form of widespread farm evictions.

The building of a new and durable nation cannot be premised only on ‘touchy
feely’ notions, but, more importantly, on the objective material reality.
The majority of whites and the majority of africans live in two different
worlds, one prosperous and the other poverty stricken. The reality is that
there is no sense of common patriotism among the inhabitants of these two
worlds or the sense of “I am my sister’s and my brother’s keeper”.

Racial and ethnic prejudice persists. These contradictions often manifest themselves in destructive ways. Racially motivated acts of aggression continue to be prevalent, especially on the farms.

The phenomenon of gated communities in the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg and elsewhere has accompanied democracy. These modern-day laagers nurture the desire of their mainly white inhabitants to cut themselves off from South Africa and practice local “own affairs”. They serve as a physical reminder of resistance to nation-building.

We must also not ignore the reality that the majority of whites still seek refuge in their ‘own’ party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). A very significant number of eThekwini indians voted for a ‘minority party’ and a very significant number of amaZulu in KwaZulu Natal voted for their ‘own’ party.

The call on the part of the founding fathers of the ANC to “bury the demon of tribalism” has not lost its validity. Some, like the IFP, engage in this practice brazenly. Others engage in low-intensity tribal mobilisation, including in order to lobby support for positions in the ANC and in government. During the debate about provincial boundaries, tribal mobilisation took place among supporters of all parties, including the ANC. It was a rude reminder when even some of the most seasoned cadres of the liberation movement took positions on provincial boundaries based on tribal affiliation. Violence and killings between tribal groups (so-called faction fights) continue on the mines.

The apartheid and colonial rulers understood tribalism and used it as a weapon. During the years of struggle the enemy used every opportunity to promote the idea that the ANC was nothing more than a Xhosa organisation. Today it has become a habit among some to count the number of amaXhosa in the public service and in government. Accusations are made that many ministers and directors-general tend to appoint their own kind. One of the biggst challenges in the Western Cape is the racial prejudice between coloureds and africans. This problem manifests itself in almost all walks of life, including in the ANC.

One of the most dangerous phenomena is the tendency to misuse legitimate concerns of tribal or national groups about language, culture or religion to promote oneself. If an indian or Sotho-speaking person does not get elected or appointed to a post they avail himself for, then – according to the candidate and his supporters – it is because of Anti-Indianism or because of Nguni dominance).

In spite of the constitutional equality of all languages, English and Afrikaans continue to dominate. The African languages still receive insufficient state resources. The non-official indigenous languages receive virtually no attention. Some recent developments, like the making of the first full length international movie in isiXhosa, uCarmen eKhayalitsha, present a glimmer of hope.

The African personality still struggles for breath. Our educational system somehow still uses the approach: the more European-like, the better educated. It is still more essential for an educated person to know the story of the French revolution than to know the story of the Congo under King Leopold. And of course we are continually taken by the wickedly seductive embrace of Hollywood.

None of this should cause alarm and consternation. The present situation does not constitute a crisis. Only an idealist would have assumed that the national question would be solved completely the moment apartheid falls. The way forward must be based on an accurate and honest appraisal of the reality as it is.


The liberation movement is not merely a passive observer in the nation-building process. It carries the historic responsibility to resolve the antagonistic contradictions of the national question.

The first step is to understand the national question and its material basis. The highest priority needs to be given to the actual material upliftment of Africans, especially women and those in rural areas. The second economy must be brought out of the shadows.

The african majority have a leading role to play in building our new nation – just as africans were the leading force in the struggle. This can only be done on the basis of african unity. If tribalism persists, the emergence of a South African nation will continue to elude us. Left unchecked, tribalism can become the biggest threat to our social and political stability. The african unity needed should not be confused for a narrow, chauvinistic form of Africanism which denies the rights of minorities.

The different languages and cultures of South Africa need to be respected and promoted. So while we want to encourage a critical mass of common cultural practices for the purposes of nation-building, we are do not advocate the need for a monotonous sameness in which we are all cultural clones of each other. The existence of distinct cultures and languages do not pose an inherent threat to nation-building. In fact, nationhood will never be achieved without all cultural groups exercising their freedom and without a genuine comfort with the cultures of other South Africans. At the same time we must spare no effort to reject those of our traditional practices which are backward.

Together with this, more needs to be done to enable the creativity of our artists. We will not build a nation if we subject our artists to the mercy of the market, where art is just another commodity. We are still in a South Africa where nobody will publish a writer’s work unless it is approved by his majesty, King Market!

Much, much more needs to be done to build a sense of pride in our South African and African heritage. It is good to brim with pride when we win the soccer world cup bid. But real national pride cannot be based on a silent acceptance of the colonial imposition of ideas – particularly the lie that African culture without the influence of Europe was primitive and backward. For example, only when we embrace the great San rock art painters and paintings as our common heritage, and understand that there is no earlier expression of human culture to be found anywhere else will we stop feeling culturally inferior to the self-proclaimed ‘great civilisations’ of the world.

Our strategic approach to the national question will be shallow if we fail to take the trouble to understand who we are. There is for example, an assumed sameness attributed to the Johannesburg Muslim Indian South African and the eThekweni Tamil Indian South African. Often, in reference to africans, the Nama are excluded just because apartheid classified them as coloureds.

We must not regard the white group as monolithic. It is becoming clearer and clearer that white Afrikaners have a different emotional, psychological and material relationship to Africa and South Africa compared to other whites.

There are many signs indicating that Afrikaners are embracing the new South Africa and an Africanism more readily than English-speaking whites.

The vexing question of terminology must not be swept under the carpet.

Racial classification cannot be avoided if we are to ensure representivity in the state and in society generally. But we must acknowledge that this creates the risk of freezing racial and cultural categories rather than allowing for organic development. And Afrikaners ask the valid question: how many hundreds of years more do they need to live here before they can be called Africans?

The ANC has duty to South Africa and to future generations to deal adequately with the national question. We also have a duty to the rest of Africa and the world where there is generally a groping in the dark or an idealistic hope that the national question will one day just vanish.